Sunday, December 7, 2014

Quick book reviews (#9)

Here is another set of brief reviews of books I read earlier this year. I still have quite a ways to go before I consider myself caught up. As usual, these reviews use a scale of one to five stars based on Library Thing (where I post these reviews as well). I am a tough grader and seldom give out the full five stars, so keep that in mind when looking at my ratings.

I should probably mention something about my reading style. I read mostly non-fiction and usually am reading at least five books at the same time. I tend to bounce between them depending upon my mood. Typically, I am reading at least one book from each of these categories: sports, Christianity, business, technology, and history. Generally, I don’t let myself read fiction because I have trouble putting it down and I currently can’t afford to go without sleep!

Without further ado, here is another batch of reviews.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (4.5 stars) 

I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of reviews in more or less the order I read the books, but I felt this one was too important to wait. I recently read this book after hearing Atul Gawande discussing it on the radio. The combination of his perspective, my appreciation for his earlier book (Checklist Manifesto), and being in the process of dealing with aging parents made it something I could not resist reading. 

His book is a penetrating look at aging, what is wrong with the current state of eldercare, and, more generally, end of life issues. He looks at the issues from a few different perspectives. One of them is his personal one as a surgeon dealing with patients looking to medicine (and him) to provide lifesaving treatments. Another is his own experiences with his aging relatives (including parents) as they became more feeble and ultimately face death. A final perspective is that of medical people trying different approaches in an effort to improve the lot of those in their declining years. 

The book is in some respects just a collection of anecdotes from those differing perspectives. Gawande does a good job, however, of weaving them together to give a picture of the flaws in our current systems and some hope for future approaches that may be better. His stories of his patients going through multiple surgeries that ultimately don’t help are heart rending. To counterbalance those, there are plenty of uplifting accounts of things like the joy of enabling a piano teacher to teach just a little bit longer and how adding animals to nursing care facility made a major positive impact on the patients. Ultimately, however, what makes this all very real is his own personal experience of dealing with the decline and death of his father (also a doctor).

My only real complaint is that Gawande does not offer enough in the way of concrete solutions. His many examples point out some long-term hope, but probably too late to be of much use to people currently in decline. Despite that, I came away with some ideas of how to deal with aging, both for myself and for older folks like my 90-year-old mom.

I consider this book essential reading for anyone facing aging parents, aging themselves, or expecting to die one day. Yes, that means everyone.

Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling’s Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham (3.0 stars)

Half Man, Half Bike is another one of the books I read in my cycling biography phase. This one falls somewhere between Sex, Lies, and Handlebar Tape (about Jacques Anquetil) and Slaying the Badger (Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault). While not as captivating as the latter, it is much better than the former. Eddy Merckx was always to me a revered name in cycling with one of the most incredible resume of victories. Before this book, however, I knew little of the man. He was from Belgium, spoke Flemish rather than French, won the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia five times, and Vuelta a EspaƱa as well as numerous of the so-called classics, and generally ruled the cycling world in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the kind of cyclist who rode the last six days in the 1975 Tour de France after he fractured his cheek bone in a crash all the while knowing he could not catch the first-place rider. His nickname was the Cannibal for his relentless, take-no-prisoners desire to not only win, but destroy his opponents. The only explanation he can give for this his insatiable desire to win is, “Passion, only passion.” I recommend this to anyone interesting in learning about the greats in cycling or someone who is interested in what drives a successful athlete or person. 

Making All Things New by Henri Nouwen (3.5 stars)

Making All Things New is a short book that looks at reconciling our crazy busy lives with putting God's Kingdom first. Nouwen discusses the paradox that our lives are somehow both overly filled and yet are ultimately unfulfilled. Like most of his work that I have read, this book forced me to think about how I live my life. At the same time, Nouwen's life was so far from mine that I find it hard to directly apply what he writes. Despite that, his honesty makes what he writes very approachable. He does not claim to have simple answers or even ones that he is successful at fully implementing. This book, like Gracias, is one I expect I will read periodically in the hopes that his words better sink in each time and help me to live my life more in keeping with how God would want me to. I think this book is worth reading for most 21st Century Christians looking to find balance in their lives.

The Second Machine Age: Work Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (3.5 stars)

The authors wrote this book as a follow-on their previous book about technology and the economy, Race against the Machine, which I found very thought provoking. In The Second Machine Age, they look at how things once considered un-automatable like driving and medicine may well not be and how that will affect the economy. I've read a lot about driver-less cars by Google (and others) and can't wait until I can either work or sleep in my car while it takes me where I need to go. What I had not given much thought to was how this will affect the economy. In this book, the authors explore some of the consequences if jobs like long-distance trucker are no longer ones done by humans. So too, in medicine where now there are interesting developments with IBM's Watson technology being used to diagnose patients. How will that affect doctors and the healthcare field as a whole? At one level, these are not immediate concerns, but at the same time the technology is moving very quickly and will have consequences for all of us. This book is well worth reading for anyone who likes to think about future technology and how it will affect us. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I miss my kids

I miss my kids. The screen saver on the computer in my home office shows thousands of photos of wonderful moments from the past. I sometimes can’t bring myself to stop watching the pictures and do the work I know I need to do. I find myself watching for just a few more pictures. And then, a few more.

Becky on our trip to Las Vegas
My kids are no longer kids, they are all adults near 30 years of age. I am blessed that I get to see them regularly. I love them and am proud of who they have grown up to be. 

But, my kids are gone. The girl who sat in my lap watching the Sound of Music over and over again, the boy describing in excruciating detail the features of the F16 fighter, and the boy curled up asleep under my chair while I'm working from home are all gone. They are memories that photos can conjure, but they are gone. I miss them the way they were. 

I’ve been thinking about this for some time but have been at a loss for what to conclude. Every time I tried to draw a scriptural or general principle, I failed. 

Nathan at the Colosseum
When I looked in the Bible for references to remembering, most of them were intended to exhort people to remember what God had done for them in the past. While I agree with that, it did not seem to apply to what I had been pondering. So, I was stuck with musings and no resolution.  

Recently, however, I went to a Steven Curtis Chapman concert. (As an aside, it was a great concert with Third Day also performing.) Chapman told the story of trying to get his two young daughters to bed so he could work and they wanted to play. Once he put them down, without reading a story, he regretted the whole incident. Based on that and his experiences with his adult daughter, he wrote the hit song Cinderella. If you've never heard it, or it has been awhile, it is worth listening to. It tells about how fast childhood goes by and concludes with dancing at a daughter's wedding. It is a wonderfully insightful song that errs on the side of sappy, but will bring a tear to the eye of anyone with children. 

Davey on a camping trip to the beach
What made the story he told especially poignant was that one of those daughters died a few months later in a tragic accident in the driveway of his home. For years, he was unable to sing the song knowing that he would never get to dance with her at her wedding. Eventually, he felt he needed to start singing the song as a message of hope for others. He spoke knowingly of cherishing the moments he did have with her, but with the knowledge that they are gone. He then sang the song and tears ensued. 

I feel especially blessed that, unlike Chapman, I was able to be at all of my children's weddings. There is, of course, a danger that as when I can't pull away from the pictures on my computer screen, the past can prevent us from doing what we need to do.

I did find a couple Bible verses that caution against dwelling too much on the past:
  • Isaiah 43:18 - Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things from the past.
  • Ecclesiastes 7:10 - Do not say, "Why is it that the former days were better than these?"
I need to find that balance to remembering, even cherishing, the past while not dwelling on it; to being thankful for the many ways that God has blessed me, while straining forward toward the future that awaits.

I think I need to spend some time with my grandsons!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Now with PT

When I meet people, they often ask about the company I work for, Principled Technologies (PT). I explain that we do fact-based marketing, primarily for technology companies. If they seem at all interested, I then go on to tell them more and describe some examples of what we do. If they are not careful, I will keep on talking about PT as I am very proud of the work we do!

I’m never sure whether those explanations really help people understand what we do at PT. If you were one of those people to whom I tried to explain PT, or if you are just curious, I now have another way to describe what we do. Over the last few months, our studio folks have been working on a series of videos we call Now with PT. About twice a month these videos explain the work that PT has recently completed and have some fun along the way. We’ve done seven of them so far. 

I’d encourage you to check out at least the first episode and our most recent one. We definitely had some fun making those two! 

The people narrating the videos and explaining the projects as well as those doing the video, scripting, and sound work are all folks who work at PT. You may well recognize some of them. You can check out the complete list of all of the videos on the Now with PT YouTube playlist

I think our team does a great job of highlighting the good work we do at PT. I hope you think so as well. 

And, if at some point in the future I start boring you with stories about PT, you can just say, “Thanks, but I already saw that on YouTube.”

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quick book reviews (#8)

Here is another set of brief reviews of books. I have fallen way behind on writing these, so these are from books I read as much as a year ago. I have almost twenty more reviews to write in order to catch up! 

As usual, these reviews use a scale of one to five stars based on Library Thing (where I post these reviews as well). I am a tough grader and seldom give out the full five stars, so keep that in mind when looking at my ratings.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (4.0 stars)

David and Goliath is a Gladwell book through and through. Like his other books (such as The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers), it is a fun, quick read that builds its case via lots of anecdotes. In this book, he starts off using the familiar Biblical story of David and Goliath. Gladwell argues fairly persuasively that contrary to popular thinking, Goliath never stood a chance. Foot soldiers, even really large ones, were easy targets for stone hurlers and other range-weapon fighters. Gladwell contends through the remainder of the book that overcoming perceived disadvantages is what makes many people successful. He then uses examples of people who have overcome disadvantages (poverty, dyslexia, dead parents, etc.) to show how they were instrumental to their successes. Gladwell concedes that few of these people would wish their situations on others (and indeed they shelter their own children from those situations), but they still understand that those circumstances were critical to their successes. I would recommend this book to almost everyone who wants to explore the causes of success or just wants a fun book to read.

Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France by Richard Moore (4.5 stars)

This book explores the world of professional cycling through the lives of two great competitors and their rivalry during the 1986 Tour de France. The French Bernard Hinault was a grizzled veteran and winner of a record-tying five Tours de France. Greg LeMond was a young, free-spirited American with seemingly limitless potential. What makes their rivalry even more compelling is that they were on the same team. The resulting clash made that Tour de France arguably the greatest one ever. And, it made this book a joy to read. As such, it was a marked contrast to another cycling book about a five-time Tour winner, Sex, Lies, and Handlebar Tape (see my critique in my last set of book reviews). Moore does a great job of giving glimpses into the lives and motivations of LeMond and Hinault, rather than just recounting the events. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in cycling or understanding what drives competitive athletes. The book is rewarding and well worth the time to read it.  

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton (3.5 stars)

Walton gives a new perspective on the Biblical Genesis 1 creation account by viewing it in light of other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature. He does this by working through eighteen propositions/chapters about Genesis 1. The first two are the critical ones that provide the foundation for the remaining ones. The first proposition is that Genesis one needs to be viewed as ancient cosmology not as scientific exposition. The second proposition regards ontology and was much harder for me to get my head around. He asserts that ANE cosmology is function oriented (describing functional ontology) rather than material. The simplest example he gave is that creating a curriculum does not refer to the material manufacturing process, but the process of organizing the ideas and goals necessary to form the curriculum. I found some of what Walton proposes to be compelling, but I confess that I don’t have the necessary expertise in ANE cosmology or the philosophy of ontology to see all the flaws in his arguments. Despite that, I found what he wrote to be well worth considering and recommend this book to anyone willing to be challenged in their understanding of the Biblical creation account in Genesis 1.

Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God. A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. by Christopher Yuan & Angela Yuan (4.0 stars)

This book is a particularly hard one to summarize in a paragraph. The simplest description is that it is the story of a mother and her homosexual son. It is, however, the successive layers of complexity and feeling that make the book compelling. The mother, Angela Yuan, starts out as a fairly stereotypical Chinese immigrant, wife, and mother. Her son, Christopher Yuan is the complementary successful son of immigrants. His struggles with his sexuality, and his life in general, send the whole family into crisis. The book chronicles their intertwined roads to redemption. Part of what makes the book compelling is that each of them write alternating chapters. Neither of them pulls punches nor succumbs to pat answers. I think Out of a Far Country is worth reading for anyone seeking to better understand people in crisis and especially for Christians grappling with one of the most divisive issues of our times.